Gameplan: Did Texas recruit athletes who can win in space on NSD1?

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Texas has come a ways since the Charlie Strong era. The already struggling roster was quickly gutted with suspensions and transfers, and some considerable Mack Brown mistakes were compounded by Strong’s initial choices with offensive staffing. However, thanks to Strong’s eye for talent and some of the recruiting and development by later add-ons such as Jeff Traylor, Jay Norvell, and Matt Mattox, Texas was able to rebuild the infrastructure of the roster.

Heading into 2017 Tom Herman was inheriting some solid offensive linemen (who were all then injured), an ancillary blocker that understood spread concepts, a workable roster at linebacker and safety that wouldn’t be totally outclassed in space by Big 12 offenses, and not one but two quarterbacks that could offer high level play in the spread. Herman even inherited three NFL caliber receivers in Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Devin Duvernay.

The challenge moving forward was to continue to build on that advantage but then to put opponents away by assembling elite athletes that could outclass the Big 12 in space. This wasn’t Herman’s explicit strategy. His goal was oriented more around toughness and power in the trenches, but it seemed possible Texas might stumble into the right approach simply by virtue of high level recruiting. Oklahoma had been making the right approach obvious for years now.

“Oh you want to play these games with fast tempo and isolate athletes in space? Sounds good. We have CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown, Jalen Hurts, and Kyler Murray. They love playing high scoring games settled by athletes in space.”

Oklahoma’s recruiting in recent years has plucked some of the finest wide receivers from the Metroplex just south of the Red River and they’ve rode their talent to five consecutive Big 12 championships with the possibility of a sixth this weekend. There’s hope Texas might hire a coach soon who could help the Longhorns embrace a similar strategy but there’s still the question of what they’ll be inheriting from Herman’s final recruiting class.

Space force recruiting

What many Big 12 programs (and Clemson) have discovered is elite athleticism only truly matters in a few positions in the modern game. A well developed, fourth year offensive guard can be an absolute bull, and you will struggle to confuse an undersized but quick and experienced senior linebacker, but there’s no substitute for elite skill talent in space.

If you can’t block that edge rusher without a double team, your capacity for creating and attacking space in the passing game will be limited. If you can’t cover that wide receiver without tightly bracketing him with safety help, it’ll be very difficult to limit space in other areas of the field.

For the Longhorns to really “embrace Goliath,” to use Chris Del Conte’s term, and maximize their station as the flagship program in Texas, they need to be recruiting elite athletes in the space force positions of left tackle, edge-rusher, wide receiver, and cornerback. Evaluations of NSD1 should start with what was possible and then what actually happened for the Longhorns in terms of loading up at these crucial spots where it’s easiest to stand out from the pack in the Big 12 conference.

As you can see, Texas didn’t hit a homerun by this evaluation. The whiff on Tommy Brockermeyer was a bad one, as was the loss of Billy Bowman who was at one time committed to Texas, albeit with the projection more likely to be as a defensive back.

There are other exacerbating factors as well. Ja’Tavion Sanders may choose to be a tight end rather than an edge rusher and Jordon Thomas may grow into more of a strongside end. Ishmael Ibraheem may have chosen Texas but now his status is up in the air after an arrest. If Sanders chooses tight end and Ibraheem loses his spot, Texas will have secured just three space force cadets out of the 20 rated highest in the state by 247’s composite score. Texas A&M has four, Oklahoma has six, and Alabama has two and arguably the two best.

Texas’ surest path to standing out in the Big 12 is here, by recruiting all the obvious high school talents that everyone acknowledges are the best and getting them on campus. However, a failure here isn’t the end of the story. Texas hypothetically could have additional advantages in getting “first pick” of some of the lower rated players and theoretically having the expanded recruiting staff and highly compensated assistant coaches to make the most of the players they do sign.

After all, the last time Texas signed a class this “weak” was in 2017. Included in the 2017 crew were offensive tackles Sam Cosmi and Derek Kerstetter, “edge” prospects Ta’Quon Graham and Marqez Bimage, cornerbacks Josh Thompson and Kobe Boyce, and wide receiver Jordan Pouncey. Those are exceptionally mixed results.

Texas ended up striking gold at tackle, coming out fairly well at edge and cornerback, but then whiffing at wide receiver so spectacularly it arguably cost them a chance to play for the Big 12 Championship in 2020. So how do the 2021 cadets look upon closer examination?

Texas’ 2021 space force cadets

Ja’Tavion Sanders: 6-4, 220. 5***** from Denton Ryan
Sanders first play on his midseason senior HUDL involves him playing defensive end, recognizing a quick pass and drifting back into the passing lane, then picking it off and returning the pass for a score. Sanders’ level of size, coordination, and speed can project to a few positions. It’s really a matter of where he wants to devote himself. As a flex tight end he could be devastating, as a pass-rushing end he has great potential as well. Either is a pathway to difference-making impact, I tend to think his ball skills make tight end the right course. Tom Herman says he’ll do both but hopefully he’s able to zero in on his best position early.

Ishmael Ibraheem: 6-1,175. 4**** from Kimball
Setting aside questions of his future at Texas after the recent off field behavior, Ibraheem’s film tells the story of a corner comparable to Josh Thompson. At Kimball he’s playing a lot of cover 3, keeping the ball in front of him in deep zone and then closing with some explosiveness and precision on throws and runs in front of him. He projects really cleanly to cover 3 with his ability to backpedal and then flip his hips to turn for the ball as well as with that height. Playing press-man coverage is another matter and there’s not much to go on here, nor any 100m times from his track career to suggest he’ll be a 4.4 turn and run master.

Those concerns aside, he’s unquestionably an athletic and talented defensive back who will be a useful addition, especially if Texas moves toward more of a cover 3 scheme in the future.

Jamier Johnson: 6-0, 170. 4**** from John Muir (Pasadena, CA)
Johnson is another corner with good size and a lot of comfort playing the ball in front of him from cover 3. He has good ball skills for going up to get throws, as both a receiver or a cornerback looking for picks, and certainly some downhill speed. His projection as a press-man corner, like Ibraheem, is less clear.

Derrick Harris Jr: 6-2, 215. 4**** from New Caney
Harris has the athleticism and ability to balance dropping like a linebacker or having the force and length to rush the edge to play as a hybrid weakside end in college. He’s a prototypical 3-down end/backer hybrid. Chris Ash’s 4-down utilizes more of a true down lineman at weakside end then a mobile jack like Harris, but the kid has a lot of growth and development and might be at Texas longer than Chris Ash either way.

The biggest question with Harris, beyond whether or not his fluidity and frame work best as an edge-backer or a true D-lineman in a system like Ash’s, is his ceiling as a pass-rusher. He’d be most likely to hit it if he could balance his speed off the edge with a scheme that creates uncertainty for the offense on when and where he’s coming as a hybrid in a 3-down concept.

Jordon Thomas: 6-3, 240. 4**** from Port Arthur Memorial
Thomas is closer to the type of defensive end Chris Ash has deployed in the past. As a reminder, the most famous ends Ash coached before coming to Texas were J.J. Watt at Wisconsin (6-6, 290 pounds), Joey Bosa at Ohio State (6-6, 275 pounds), and Tyquan Lewis at Ohio State (6-4, 265 pounds). These were all big guys that could play inside a gap, two-gap at times, and play inside of a tight end and hold the point of attack.

Thomas projects to be the sort of defensive end who can rush the passer but has the power to hold the point of attack and take on blockers rather than looking to blow by them. There’s also a chance he fills out more and slides inside to 3-technique. He’s a great addition but perhaps not a star edge-rusher good left tackles can’t handle.

Jaden Alexis: 5-11, 185. 4**** from Monarch (Pompano Beach, FL)
Alexis is in the sweet spot of athleticism Texas often doesn’t find. He’s fast, with 11.03 times in high school, but we’re not talking elite straight line speed. Alexis isn’t terribly big, but he’s larger than your typical slot/burner type receiver and will probably play at 5-11, 200 or so in college. Alexis also has serious wiggle and body control, which Texas often doesn’t get in their faster receivers because they regularly target players that are 6-3 or better.

In high school he was used mostly in the slot, running fades and wheel routes for vertical shots or using his power and acceleration in the bubble screen game. He could do all of that at Texas as well but it’d be nice to see his knack for footwork and getting to his spots developed into a player that can run curls and adjustable routes outside from Z receiver. There’s some big potential here but if nothing else Texas adds an athlete that can do damage on RPOs and play-action from the slot.

Hayden Conner: 6-6, 317. 4**** from Katy Taylor
Conner’s level of athleticism and motor look inconsistent from game to game. At times he looks like a potential tackle, even a left tackle as a fourth or fifth year player (certainly at a different school), while at other times he’s a bit more sluggish and more of a power player. The slower player still has size, some quickness, and a lot of power that would translate well to guard. The maximized Conner could be a tackle, ideally a right tackle but potentially on the left side in a pinch if better athletes aren’t available. He reminds me of Mason Walters, likely to be a solid guard for multiple seasons.

Casey Cain: 6-2, 175. 3*** from Warren Easton (New Orleans, LA)
Cain might be one of the more underrated players in this class, coming out of New Orleans as a virtual unknown to most Texas recruitniks. He’s a two-way player on the hardwood with nice vision and some ability to get to the basket, all of which translates into a receiver with great ball skills and a lot of shake in his route running.

Cain could be the sort of “throw it up if he’s 1-on-1” X receiver target the Longhorns were struggling to find this season. As he grows stronger and even more refined he’ll be hard to keep off his spots because of his footwork and some crossover ability from the hardwood. He should be a chain-moving target outside.

Barryn Sorrell: 6-3, 250. 3*** from Holy Cross (New Orleans, LA)
The Longhorns snuck in another bigger defensive end from Casey Cain’s town on signing day. Sorrell is thick and powerful so there’s a chance he fill out further into a defensive tackle down the road like Thomas, but he has an explosive first step and currently rushes the passer from defensive end.

The way he uses his hands to take on blocks and his get off suggest his upside as a pass-rusher is probably as a 290-pound 3-technique after a few years of development, but there’s also a chance he’s another defensive end that can fit inside and bring physicality on the edge.

Max Merril: 6-4, 273. 3*** from Strake Jesuit
Merril is the steal of the class, a late addition when Texas was floundering after missing on the Brockermeyers as well as some of their initial contingency plans. Merril is a better prospect than some of those earlier offers though, the main hesitation here regarded his lack of size at “only” 6-4, 273 pounds. However, he has a 6-8 wingspan (same as Conner) regardless of how tall he ends up and bring the sort of punch and athleticism to the position everyone craves.

Merril is very likely to be a contributor for the line at some point in his Texas career, you can just see the athleticism and competitiveness is there to maximize his situation. Left tackle isn’t out of the question either because of the quickness and reach.

Summarizing the 2021 space force class

This is far less than ideal for Texas. The best prospects for becoming impact players at the crucial space positions that need to win 1-on-1 battles are Ja’Tavion Sanders, Max Merril, Derrick Harris, and Casey Cain. Sanders’ future is a bit murky and his impact in space may be higher at tight end than edge-rusher, which he may not play. The other three players are projects of the sort most teams in the Big 12 tend to find and hope to develop, which means there isn’t a sizable advantage for Texas here relative to the rest of the league in the areas where pressing their advantage in recruiting could have the greatest impact.

It’s a remarkable failure, even in light of the COVID struggles that kept Texas from pressing some of their advantages in recruiting such as hosting visits. This class doesn’t have to sink the Longhorns but another one or two like it and the Longhorns will have virtually no advantages vis a vis the rest of the Big 12 and a sizable disadvantage going up against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Cover Photo courtesy of Irish Sports Daily

History major, football theorist.